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This place matters

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Off with your head

I think my favorite class in all of college was Victorian Sense and Nonsense. The sense half of the equation included John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. The nonsense included the poetry of Edward Lear and of course, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
As dry and stuffy as the sense portion of the class was, it provided a great context for understanding the nonsense. Lewis Carroll's critique of Victorian rules and prohibitions gets lost in the whimsy of the story, and that's too bad.
Lewis Carroll's England was one of order and rules. The son of an austere and old-fashioned minister, Carroll's early life would have been one of rules and punishments, moral prohibitions and institutionalized shame. He attended strict schools and wore the tight, confining clothing that characterized his era. He would have visited homes whose decor was often a sort of joyless ornamental excess - at once fussy and formal. He'd have memorized a strict code of manners and niceties - orderly gardens, orderly dances, orderly people, orderly society. Exactly the sort of environment, I imagine, that would have been torture to one of the most creative minds of all time. 
So it's no surprise that his books would serve as either an accidental or intentional critique of that society. A rabbit whose life depends upon good etiquette. The Mad Hatter and March Hare deeply offended that Alice doesn't know the nonsense rules of their tea party. Men in a panic because there are white roses growing where red roses should be.*
The Caterpillar resembles a strict school teacher, demanding rote recitation, cutting the student down when she recites incorrectly, and only barely, and grudgingly, teaching Alice anything at all. I wonder if Disney picked up on that in their animated adaptation - the caterpillar is singing an alphabet song when we meet him.
Alice's meeting with the flowers in the garden makes me think of Victorian ladies in books. They don't speak until they're spoken to, but when they finally do, they talk only of superficial things, observing social niceties as they tear each other down over leaves and petals and stems.
In fact, everywhere Alice goes, she's scolded and shamed for failing to understand and conform to utterly nonsensical rules. Wonderland is more beautiful, more magical than anyone but Carroll could imagine, yet everyone's mean and everyone's petty and everyone's cross and nobody's happy. 
And perhaps that is just as relevant a message to us as to the Victorians. Life is beautiful precious and so, so unbearably brief. It is far too short to run about getting our knickers in a twist over tea parties and table manners, fashion faux pas and Freudian slips. We're in Wonderland, baby - stop and smell the roses and don't worry if they're white or red.
Lewis Carroll
by Lewis Carroll

* Side note: Victorians were big on the language of flowers. Red roses meant love. White roses, innocence, secrecy, or a heart unacquainted with love. Red and white roses together meant unity. I don't know whether Carroll meant anything by this or not.

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